In an Ashes series where the same head-to-heads play out over the course of five Test matches, momentum is crucial. For England to squander a relative position of strength at Edgbaston – as a first innings lead of 90 undoubtedly was – in such emphatic fashion may have already harmed them beyond repair.
This may sound like catastrophising in the extreme with so much cricket left to play but for Australia to outplay England in the second innings to the tune of 341 runs at a ground they hadn’t tasted victory at since 2001 feels significant.
Steve Smith has once again proven he is the best Test batsman ever since Sir Don Bradman by becoming just the fifth Aussie to score two centuries in the same Ashes Test match, all after spending almost 18 months cast aside thanks to the fallout of sandpaper-gate, and the immovable object will have two new foes to face.
Without Jimmy Anderson, the workload on England’s three seamers was just too great heading into the second innings in Birmingham. The pitch also proved to be more conducive to spin by this point, and a severely out-of-form Moeen Ali failed to capitalise. But England have moved quickly to replace these men who leave big shoes to fill.
However, Jofra Archer and Jack Leach are the type of characters that seem perfectly suited to Ashes pressure. Archer, the super over hero in England’s famous World Cup final victory (doesn’t that already seem like a lifetime ago) grabbed the headlines last week by frightening the living daylights out of the Gloucestershire second team as a lack of County Championship fixtures forced the paceman to play at the sparsely populated Blackstone Academy ground – light years away from the atmosphere he will be exposed to at Lord’s this week.
Archer ended up with figures of 6/27 and smashed an 84-ball century in a performance that can be likened to Harry Kane playing for Spurs’ under-23 side: it just wouldn’t seem fair. But thank goodness Jofra was able to put any injury doubts to rest as he shakes off the side strain he sustained during that thrilling denouement to the Cricket World Cup.
Australia coach Justin Langer told ESPNcricinfo the visitors will attempt to wear Archer down and questioned whether one red ball game in 11 months is ample preparation for an England debutant, about to be thrust into the fire of an Ashes series. But credit to Archer, who responded in kind to Langer’s comments on BBC Sport: “I don’t think Justin Langer has seen me play first-class cricket. I’m probably more ready than I’ve ever been. I’ve bowled 50 overs in one game already for Sussex and I’m usually the one bowling the most overs anyway.”
You would normally be fearful of a debutant being so bullish in retorting at some typical Aussie jibes, but not with Archer. The man’s talent is so great the England hierarchy specifically changed the residency rules just so they could pick Archer for the World Cup and he repaid their faith in the best way possible.
His ability to bowl over 90mph off a run-up that looks more like a Sunday morning jog than a fast bowler straining every sinew is as mind-blowing as it is devastating for the opposition batsmen. England’s attack was heavily criticised Down Under for being too monotonous, but in Archer they have a bowler with enough pace to make the Aussie batsmen do funny things.
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The beauty of an Ashes series in England is the pitches are such that they allow any player to make a match-winning impact. There is often enough lateral movement for the pacers and later enough turn for the spinners to come to the fore – as Nathan Lyon proved with his 6/49 at Edgbaston – but, as batsmen from both sides also showed in the first Test, hundreds can be scored when application, technique and luck are all applied.
It was a big worry for England fans when toiling away during Australia’s second innings at Edgbaston that front-line spinner Moeen looked less threatening than part-time tweeters Joe Root and Joe Denly. Moeen’s plummeting form with both bat and now ball in Tests has meant, despite being a senior player for Trevor Bayliss‘ side, he was deemed unselectable just one game into the series.
As ever in sport, one man’s descension can pave the way for another’s rise, and Leach is looking to be that man at Lord’s. The left-arm spinner is as conventional as Archer is lightning-quick, but that shouldn’t be mistaken for any lack of ability. Leach’s unerring accuracy is something Moeen has desperately lacked in recent months, and the Somerset man should now give Root some much needed control – Australia scored at more than four runs an over in their second innings: Moeen’s economy was an eye-watering 4.48 as he bowled just one maiden in 29 overs.
Leach took 18 wickets, the most of any England bowler, during their successful tour of Sri Lanka last year, and was also the most economical on either side, behind the metronomic Anderson, conceding just 2.69 runs-per-over. Although he has only pulled on the England whites once in home conditions – that coming in the one-off Test at Lord’s against Ireland last month, where he was only required to bowl three overs – he still made a noticeable impact, with his 92 as nightwatchman enough to earn him the man of the match award.
And, as has been discussed endlessly already, Australia’s superstar Smith doesn’t fare quite so well against left-arm spin in Tests, making their potential match-up a series defining one. Smith’s Test average against left-armers hovers around 35 – comfortably his lowest against any bowling type and much lower than his career mark of 62.96.
However, too much has been made of these statistics, former Aussie coach Darren Lehmann told the Sydney Morning Herald. “Those wickets we played on were spinning square from day one, so averaging 34 was not a bad outcome. The wickets we played on were diabolical. In Sri Lanka and India those wickets spun from the first day. We played three-day games.
“He still averaged quite well and made runs, it just happened he got out to left-arm spin and that’s more because of the way the wickets were spinning than anything else.”
Lehmann makes a fair point. After all, in those two series against Sri Lanka in 2016 and India the year after, Smith still managed to be Australia’s top scorer, with 247 and 449 runs respectively. Statistics can be twisted to suit a narrative, and Smith certainly won’t be facing the type of wickets he faced the last time he battled against left-arm spin. Don’t expect too much of Leach.
I have already suggested England need variety in their bowling to trouble the likes of Smith, and that means picking Sam Curran. The left-arm bowler is the most akin to what England will miss in James Anderson, with the 21-year-old the biggest exponent of swing in England’s squad. England may be reticent to pick another all-rounder in place of a batsman – specifically Denly – as they have just dropped Moeen for Leach, which in theory lengthens England’s tail (although Moeen last made a Test score of more than 92 in 2016).
But Curran was man of the series last time England played a five-match series in home conditions, against India, as the Surrey man showed his all-round credentials with 272 runs at an average of nearly 39 batting at eight. He didn’t bowl too badly too, taking 11 wickets at 23.54. If England want to send the right message, they should pick Curran and move Ben Stokes to four, who has one of the best batting techniques in this current England side.
And let’s hope Chris Woakes can maintain his remarkable record at the Home of Cricket. What a ground to save your best performances for! Woakes added six wickets to his Lord’s tally as he helped demolish Ireland for 38, taking his personal total to 24. His bowling average is a scarcely believable 9.75 with the ball, and he’s also on the batting honours board too, having scored 137 not out against India.
If Woakes can bottle whatever spell comes over him at Lord’s and pass it around the England dressing room, Root’s side are onto a winner!
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